- Guys and Dolls:Gender, Scale, and the Book in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels and Karl Ove Knausgård's Min kamp1
The Italian Elena Ferrante and the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgård have both recently achieved worldwide fame with book series that are epic in scale, with sweeping panoramic scopes and undeniably maximalist qualities. Knausgård's Min kamp comprises six novels amounting to roughly 3,600 pages, published between 2009 and 2011; Ferrante's Neapolitan novels tetralogy (2011–2014) totals approximately 1,700 pages. In many other respects, it seems they could not be further apart. They embody total disclosure versus total secrecy; hypervisibility versus invisibility; masculinity versus femininity; fatherhood versus motherhood; the Protestant welfare state of Norway versus a Catholic workers district on the outskirts of Naples; Scandinavian middle class versus South Italian proletariat … the list of antitheses could go on.
Yet in this article, I argue that, in their own ways, both series render visible certain gender identities and behaviors that for different reasons have long remained unseen. Knausgård and Ferrante in their own ways both exploit the scope and volumetric dimensions of their work in order to destabilize categories of presence and absence, visibility [End Page 296] and invisibility, and feminine and masculine. Both their narrators style themselves after a masculine model of authorship that they do not fit, and use bigness as a strategy to problematize the gendered expectations that their respective sociocultural contexts impose on them.
As the autobiographical contents of Min kamp will be familiar to most readers, I will instead give a short synopsis of the Neapolitan novels here. The four texts are set in Naples from the 1950s to the present (i.e., to the 2010s) and tell the story of the lives of Elena Greco (Lenù) and her friend Raffaella Cerullo (Lila). The prologue to the first volume, "Eliminating All the Traces," begins in the present with a telephone call to the then sixty-six-year-old narrator Elena, announcing that her friend is gone: her closets empty, her face cut out of all the photographs, her computer taken away. Three decades earlier, Lila had said to Elena that "voleva volatilizzarsi; voleva disperdere ogni sua cellula; di lei non si doveva trovare più niente" (Ferrante 2011, 2.2) ["she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found" (Ferrante 2012a, 2.2)].2 Before they last parted, she made Elena promise never to write about her. She threatened:
"Ti vengo a frugare nel computer, ti leggo i file, te li cancello. … Credi che non sono capace?" "Lo so che sei capace. Ma mi so proteggere." Rise al suo vecchio modo cattivo. "Da me no."(Ferrante 2013a, 1.12)
"I'll come look in your computer, I'll read your files, I'll erase them. … You think I'm not capable of it?—I know you're capable. But I can protect myself." She laughed in her old mean way. "Not from me."(Ferrante 2014b, 1.12)
Upset about her friend's vanishing act, Lenù breaks her promise and starts writing the Neapolitan novels, countering Lila's self-erasure by restoring her in vivid detail. The resulting narrative extends across four books and 6 decades. It follows the titular brilliant friends from childhood to marriage and motherhood, detailing their love lives, careers, and political engagements, with a large-scale panorama of Neapolitan society as a backdrop.
Lenù and Lila are perpetually in alliance but also in competition: "Ciò che mancava a me lo avesse lei e viceversa, in un gioco continuo [End Page 297] di scambi e rovesciamenti che, ora con allegria, ora soffertamente, ci rendevano indispensabili l'una all'altra" (Ferrante 2011, 43.1) ["What I lacked she had, and vice versa, in a continuous game of exchanges and reversals that, now happily, now painfully, made us indispensable to each other" (Ferrante 2012a, 43.1)]. Elena is blond, conventionally pretty, and timid. A teacher's pet, she aims to please. As a child she models herself after brilliant and wild Lila, a "quella bambina terribile e sfolgorante" (2011, 8.2) ["terrible, dazzling girl...